Setting up a new lab and managing expectations- “Lab-o-poiesis” ala Tina Termini and “A Cynic’s Guide to Starting Up a Lab” by Adrian Liston

Setting up a new lab and managing expectations- “Lab-o-poiesis” ala Tina Termini and “A Cynic’s Guide to Starting Up a Lab” by Adrian Liston

Starting your independent lab is an exciting time in your career, but it also brings many challenges, including moving to a new institution, managing administrative duties, hiring staff, and balancing new responsibilities all while continuing to advance your science. 

In the April 2023 Junior Faculty Committee-sponsored webinar, both Dr. Christina Termini, a first-year Principal Investigator (PI) at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle, WA, USA, and Prof. Adrian Liston, a senior PI who has led labs at Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie in Belgium, the Babraham Institute in the UK, and now at the University of Cambridge, outlined the challenges faced at different stages of their journeys as independent researchers and how they navigated these. 

Importantly, several common themes emerged with some important take-home messages that can help you begin your own independent career journey:

Key Message #1: Running an independent research lab is a marathon, not a sprint.

It will take time to build a lab and a team and mistakes will be made but there is plenty of support around if you know where to look and who to ask. Time is the scarcest resource! So, begin by fostering relationships and collaboration with your institutional community including reaching out to other PIs, facilities, and human resources early to understand the current policies of the institution you are in and how your institution would expect you to contribute to it. Learn who your helpers are in the business office, shipping, and human resources, because these people will help you navigate many of the initial orders of business you’ll encounter when starting your lab. 

Engage with other PIs and share experiences on how best to navigate the path to tenure and promotion. Include senior and other junior faculty in your network to get a diversity of perspectives when you have key decisions to make. You should never be alone on your career journey. 

Key Message #2: When hiring new staff – be patient and clear on expectations. 

The second key message from both speakers centered around personnel. Recruitment and retention of good lab personnel are key to a lab’s success. Many of us do not receive formal training in hiring and managing staff during our PhD and Postdoc experiences. Dr. Termini emphasized the usefulness of a strategic plan in which you align projects with personnel, such that you can clearly communicate the needs of the position for which you’re hiring in a well-thought-out job posting. Both Dr. Termini and Dr. Liston agreed: do not rush to hire new people. Take the time to find the right candidates and remember to account for the time and effort each hire will cost you in onboarding and training time. 

Once the offer is made and your new lab members start to join the team, Dr. Termini recommended reading “Making of a Manager,” “Essentialism,” “The Obstacle is the Way,” and “Crucial Conversations” to supplement our managerial knowledge. Dr. Liston added that the book, “Why Marriages Succeed and Fail and How to Make Yours Last,” has been useful to him because the relationships we build with our lab staff are like a marriage as both require mutual trust and effective communication. 

Dr. Liston agreed with Dr. Termini that establishing a positive lab culture is also an important step in onboarding new hires. This can be aided by establishing and documenting clear policies and guidelines for the lab and updating them regularly as the lab evolves over time. Additionally, it’s helpful to make clear what your staff’s expectations should be of you.

Prof Liston stressed the importance of encouraging and rewarding staff to keep people that contribute well to the team. This can include efforts such as advocating for their promotion or salary increases, remembering that even large salary increases will only have a minor effect on your overall lab budget. This is a smart investment to retain good talent. 

One of the most difficult tasks for PIs is managing difficult conversations with team members when things are not going as expected. For these crucial conversations, Dr. Liston found success with using “I” language to explain his perspective on an issue. This humanizes both parties and focuses the conversation on solutions rather than blame. Dr. Liston advises new PIs to start with positive feedback, and then raise suggestions for improvement. Make sure to follow up on crucial conversations with written summaries- document everything! He strongly recommends utilizing the probationary period to carefully discern whether a new person will be successful in the lab or should best move on to a new position. This is the easiest time to make personnel changes, and sometimes you will have to make the hard decision of not keeping a lab member. 

Key Message #3: Organize the lab and prioritize your science. 

As a tenure-track assistant professor, conducting and disseminating your research should be at the forefront of your priorities. You probably already have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and how you plan to get there after writing your research statement. However, budgeting time and money are critical skills for successfully running an independent research lab. Dr. Termini advises getting more granular and planning out the order in which you will conduct the first few sets of experiments in the new lab. Review the protocols for those experiments and make lists of all the equipment and reagents needed to complete them. Then you can strategically order everything you need to initiate research in your new lab. 

Concomitant with this is having a plan for your space to ensure that you can fit your equipment and materials and have proper storage environments ready to receive your orders and facilitate your experiments. Speaking to the importance of having a well-organized lab space, Dr. Termini has coined #TheLabEdit on Twitter and shares many of her pro-tips for organizing the physical inventory in the lab and establishing a productive space with easy access to necessary experimental materials. She also advises planning for effective communication strategies, data management, and storage (i.e., through Microsoft Teams, Slack, or similar tools) so that newly generated data can be easily shared and accessed by lab members and preserved for publication and archival purposes. Collaborations can be very helpful for moving projects forward but can also be a huge cost on time and money if the collaboration is too one-sided. Choose collaborators wisely. Dr. Liston encouraged people not to hoard, but rather to spend their start-up packages to generate research products, like conference abstracts, grant applications, and manuscripts for publication. Use connections and resources at your institution to get discounts from vendors, even a 10-20% discount on orders really adds up! Dr. Liston advises against new PIs budgeting too much time for service (committees, reviewers, etc.). Instead, he encourages new PIs to ringfence substantial amounts of time to focus their time on thinking, writing, managing, and producing preliminary data because publications and grants are key to tenure and promotion. Ideally, new PIs should plan to write 2-3 grants per year, spending 3-6 months on writing, editing, and submitting. 

In summary, being a tenure-track assistant professor is an exciting but challenging phase of your career. We hope these key messages on starting a new research lab will help you navigate this phase successfully and achieve your research and career goals. Good luck!

We would like to thank our speakers Dr Christina Termini and Professor Adam Liston for sharing their experience.

The Junior PI webinar series is freely available for all ISEH members on the webinar page of the ISEH website. 

Blog post contributed by Vanessa Scanlon from the ISEH Junior Faculty Committee

Please note that the statements made by Simply Blood authors are their own views and not necessarily the views of ISEH. ISEH disclaims any or all liability arising from any author's statements or materials.


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